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Thursday, August 26, 2004
Updated: August 27, 12:13 PM ET
Cubic zirconias aren't forever

By Jim Caple
Page 2

ATHENS, Greece – One advantage to managing in Cuba as opposed to the major leagues is that the Cuban skippers never have to worry about hearing from Donald Fehr and the players association.

Cuba manager Higinio Velez brought Adiel Palma in to pitch 3 2/3 innings of crucial relief in Wednesday night's gold medal game the day after he was the starting pitcher in the semifinal game. I don't know how Palma's arm feels today but he wasn't complaining when he earned his third victory of the Olympics in a 6-2 victory over Australia. His performance was so impressive that George Steinbrenner already has Brian Cashman floating on a life raft in Havana harbor.

Palma's relief effort capped an interesting night. Cuba center fielder Carlos Tabares made a spectacular snowcone catch to rob Australia of a game-tying two-run double, with the Aussies complaining so loudly that he dropped the ball that both their manager and first-base coach were ejected. Undaunted by the ejections and fortified by beer, a very large contingent of Australian fans sang "Waltzing Matilda" about a dozen times per inning. And in an uplifting display of international understanding and community, fans from around the world stood and joined together for the song so long identified as the true anthem of baseball: "Y-M-C-A."

I feel bad, though. Despite this spirit of goodwill, Olympic brotherhood and global unity, I spent the whole game wishing Roger Clemens could have been here to knock those guys on their asses.

"How many times have you been asked about the U.S. team?" a Canadian fan in front of me said. "I bet I've been asked 100 times this week -- 'Why isn't the U.S. here?'"

Matt Holiday
One well-pitched game sent the defending champs home long before the Olympics even started.
Yes, that was easily the most frequently asked question at the baseball stadium. Well, that and "How can it be a strike if they didn't swing?" If it isn't easy explaining baseball's rules to foreign fans, it's even worse explaining why the country that wrote those rules isn't in the Olympics.

But since they asked ...

Let's begin with the fact that of the eight baseball slots in the Olympics, three were given to Europe, where baseball is barely played, and only two to the Americas, where the game is the national pastime for multiple countries. This is like holding the MTV music video awards and nominating two hip-hop acts from the U.S. but three from Sweden.

You had the Netherlands, which isn't that bad a team because baseball is slowly growing there and the Dutch can include players from the Antilles (home to Andruw Jones and to ex-Yankee Hensley Muelens, now a coach for the Dutch). In fact, the Netherlands started eight black players one game, which is more than you generally see in a major-league game.

Greece also had a team here because it's the host country, even if that meant fielding a team of Greek-Americans and Greek-Canadians because almost nobody plays the sport here. But there's nothing wrong with that -- spending more than $7 billion on a worldwide party grants the host certain perks beyond selecting the dance music and appetizers.

And then there was Italy, which had as much business being here as Jean Claude Van Damme does at the Academy Awards.

Italy
The Italians made everyone look good in Athens.
Baseball is nothing more than a cult sport in Italy and the Italians were the Kansas City Royals of the Olympics, losing six of their seven games by a combined score of 58-19. So why did the Italians get a team? Because Aldo Notari of Italy just happens to be the president of the International Baseball Federation and the president of the European Baseball Confederation. And he is more interested in getting Italy and other European teams into the Olympics than in getting the best teams here.

So, OK. Europe got three teams and the Americas got two. We're a big hemisphere, we have air conditioning and TiVo, we can deal with that. After all, we only got two teams at Sydney in 2000 because room had to be made for that famous baseball power, South Africa.

Only there was a little problem with the qualifying tournament last fall. Namely, it was so poorly run that several of the countries didn't even bother showing up, including the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 13-team tournament wound up being a nine-team tournament. The round-robin week of games was supposed to eliminate five teams but because of the no-shows, only one team got knocked out, which made the round-robin a waste of everyone's time. Mexico lost all three games in the round-robin and still advanced to the final, single-elimination round, where it got a well-pitched game and beat the U.S. 2-1.

Those were the only two runs the U.S. allowed the whole tournament but that's all it took to knock us out of the Olympics.

True, the U.S. shouldn't have lost to Mexico but these things happen in baseball. And true, Cuba still found a way to get here, as did Canada.

Netherlands
You can't argue with the Netherlands being in Athens.
But it still comes down to a terrible system stacked against bringing the world's best teams together. Baseball already is in danger of losing its Olympic status -- host cities don't like building a ballpark they'll never use again while the IOC wants big leaguers to add luster -- and not having the country that invented the game represented doesn't help.

The key is not to whine about this year but to change the system so this doesn't happen again. If the ruling federations refuse to take the most logical step of opening the Olympics to more teams from the Americas, Major League Baseball needs to allow big leaguers to play in the qualifying tournament (as Japan's did in the Asian qualifying tournament) to lessen the odds of an upset.

Whether they won gold or no medal at all, the Americans should have been here and Clemens should have been pitching for the U.S. instead of Houston. The United States contribution to Olympics baseball should be more than "Cotton Eye Joe."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com